Nearly a month has passed since the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, one of Russia's foremost opposition politicians of the last 15 years. There are several theories circulating as to who is responsible for the February killing, which took place on Moscow's Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge. These theories range from specious claims of Western government involvement designed to provoke and destabilize the Putin regime, to more widespread conjecture that Putin himself or forces aligned with him were involved. Russian state television and conformist political formations like the Anti-Maidan Coalition, for example, actively pitched the idea of a Western-sponsored “Maidan implantation” through provocation. Many voices of the opposition in Russia developed a narrative where Putin and the FSB (the Russian security agency and successor to the KGB) orchestrated the killing.
The official investigation launched by Russian state authorities has recently introduced a “Chechen trail," implicating Zaur Dadayev, a commander of Chechnya's North Battalion, along with a number of his family members. The Russian Investigative Committee contends that Dadayev and his network of accomplices planned the murder as a reaction to Nemtsov's recent statements regarding the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the right of the cartoonists to publish their work. Media reports have surfaced claiming that Dadayev was tortured and coerced into making a confession while in custody. This convenient Chechen narrative puts the blame on this small group of men as both organizers and killers, diminishing the need to investigate the matter further.
It is strange to see this debate in the media go on for weeks without much concerted discussion devoted to Nemtsov’s views on Russia's political future, or to what ends his oppositional politics amounted. In the case of his murder, there are many reasons to favor the version that blames Putin, the government, the security apparatus, or their overzealous nationalist supporters. However, even if this is the case, it is doubtful that we will ever know the full truth. That is, we will never know it unless the Russian civil society and oppositional forces act on the ideas and proposals of Russian liberalism in general, and Nemtsov’s in particular.
Back in the 1990s, Nemtsov and other Russian liberals were firmly positioned in the mainstream. Those who pushed the majority of Russian economic and political reforms since the collapse of the USSR (those slightly on the right of the political spectrum of the times) were part of the political elite and comprised Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle. Nemtsov’s career on the federal level, as part of that inner circle, began around 1997. The timing of his entrance to federal level politics was perfect: the “dirty work” of transitioning the Russian economy and its political system away from socialism was already done. This included Privatization, the 1993 Constitutional Crisis, and the 1996 Presidential Election campaign, in which Yeltsin barely squeezed a win over the Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov. Needless to say, the political mainstream of the 90s—a decade when the majority of the population in Russia experienced unprecedented hardships as they weathered neoliberal transformation—still carries the tint of total failure. This is part of the reason why the current Russian opposition is so weak.
It is often assumed that the current political elite somehow simply inherited the “Soviet playbook” of cynical totalitarianism, human rights violations, and blatant propaganda. But the 1990s necessitated a change of tableau. To do battle with the westernized, PR-friendly, and business-compatible liberals, the system of misinformation had to be reinvented anew in order to compete with the free flow of information in the fledgling democracy of those economically volatile years. In Russia, like in any modern "managed democracy," trolling is the order of the day: a pattern where politicians openly lie, misinform, and reduce productive debate to emotional outbursts. Take Vlaidslav Surkov, who Nemtsov once called a "vessel," an adaptable advisor and savvy PR force aiding Putin as an administrative chief and, reportedly, the agent responsible for Nemtsov's brief 2011 imprisonment amid new anti-protest policies. "Under Yeltsin, [Surkov] was a democrat," said Nemstov, "under Putin he’s an autocrat." Surkov is the post-modernized autocrat and a prime example of the forces behind Russia's political crisis. Surkov channeled his conceptual art background into a campaign of mystification that would transform the political landscape, often creating anti-Kremlin opposition groups alongside government supporters in order to divide and control both sides for his own interests. Nemtsov was a force that sought to bring clarity to the public and break the cycle of abstraction and manipulation.
In the aftermath of Putin’s ascent to power and the surreal political climate that followed, the liberals fell to increasing insignificance, at times joining forces with deracinated communists and nationalists who were similarly disgruntled by Putin’s total usurpation. Liberals gained their reputation among “the masses” not as party ideologues or Westernizers trying to smash the old ways, but as “Kremlin critics.” Thus began the era of Boris Nemtsov’s career as one of the leading oppositional figures. Despite the unpopularity of his official political stance, tinted as it was by the historic failures of the 90s, he undoubtedly gained the reputation of a principled man, a skillful orator, and a protest organizer who went through a number of arrests as a result of his activism. The path of going from a Kremlin insider to a street activist is extremely characteristic of many people in the Russian liberal circles, but it was especially pronounced in Nemtsov’s career, who at one time was rumored to become Yeltsin's successor. There is a certain aura of moral righteousness to his story, especially since Nemtsov is one of the few elite politicians of the 90s who is said to have exited from that era completely “clean." He never endured any accusations of corruption or connections to the criminal world.
It's imperative to look beyond the moral aspects of Nemtsov’s stance and herald his policy proposals. His party’s program for the development of the political structure and the economy calls for a radically different Russia with democratic power, decentralized governance, and free markets. Of course, like any political party program, it is a bit idealistic, if not utopian. But it chooses the correct method of attempting to dismantle the status quo, through critical analysis and activism. Nemtsov put this method into practice by publishing regular reports. Before his death, he was deeply involved in anti-war activism. He was preparing to publish a report on the Russian military in Eastern Ukraine which is said to include searing revelations about Russian casualties. Currently, his allies are consolidating his working documents and plan to release the report posthumously. He also recently examined the expenses of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and Gazprom, the state-controlled energy company, looking to find connections between executive level salaries and energy tariffs for ordinary citizens.
In the midst of this work, Nemtsov was publicly called out by his conformist opponents as one of the faces of the subversive "fifth column" that worked to undermine the latest "Russian Spring." Here is his picture at the center of a banner displayed on the storefront of one of the oldest and respected book stores in Moscow. It states: "THE FIFTH COLUMN: ALIENS AMONG US."
This is the "atmosphere of hatred" that the more progressive Russian media identified as the ultimate culprit of the death of Boris Nemtsov. It is doubtful that any of the more logical theories surrounding Nemtsov's murder will be explored as part of an official investigation. Historically, state investigations looking into the deaths of Putin critics have a dismal lack of integrity. Instead, the Russian public will get whatever the trolling machine puts out while both the left and right of the political spectrum are pulled deeper into the black hole of Putinism. Following the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing violence in Ukraine, Putin has succeeded in attracting higher ratings among the general Russian population, rupturing the fragile alliance of various dissenters. This has turned the liberals into the remaining political force actively engaged in the fight against the regime, while much of the public is distracted by a search for enemies from within and without, spurred on by a cultivated distrust of the West and the US. This is why Nemtsov was so easy to kill. It remains to be seen whether his death will induce a paralysis among the opposition, or if it will inspire new action.
Leonid Martyanov is a graduate student in the History Program at Hunter College. He specializes in modern Eastern European history, the Soviet intelligentsia, and interdisciplinary approaches to studying late socialism.
Image via Washington Post.